The Crackdown

It's the final crackdown, of foreign subtances.

It’s been about two weeks since Major League Baseball began enforcing its crackdown on foreign substance use from pitchers in baseball. MLB made alterations to the baseball and has a tough time taking responsibility for anything so as any reasonable person could expect, they blamed the pitchers using foreign substances on the down year offensively. We are beginning to see the ramifications of an in-season change on pitchers to try and make educated guesses on what it could mean for certain players more forward. Which if you’re a fantasy manager reading this article, is all you probably care about. But to fully understand this change and issue, we need to understand why spin is so important for pitchers today, how foreign substances affect it, and what we’ve seen so far in the small sample size. 


The Spin Zone


If you’ve been following baseball heavily for the past few years, the term spin rate should almost be ingrained in your head. Spin rate, as defined by mlb.com, the rate of spin on a ball after its release. Spin can alter the trajectory of the ball and the movement patterns of a pitch. Spin is measured in revolutions per minute or, RPM. For example, a 93-mph fastball thrown with 2800 RPMs will hypothetically “rise” or drop less into the strike zone than a 93-mph fastball thrown with 2400 RPMs. With some pitch types, spin is very important and the more of it the better the pitch could be. Fastballs and curveballs tend to be the pitches that are most benefitted from high-spin rates. For fastballs, dropping less into the strike zone is important, for curveballs the tighter the break the more difficult of a pitch it is to hit. 

Not every pitch type is benefitted from having more spin. Changeups, splitters, and even sinkers can be unaffected by more spin, and changeups are even meant to reduce spin like they reduce velocity to dramatically change the trajectory of the ball to help build differences between the fastball and the changeup. It’s similar to how we think about a velocity gap in fastballs and changeups. You don’t want your changeup to only 3 mph slower than your fastball and don’t want it to be spinning only 300 RPMs less than your fastball. At that point, it’s not a changeup, it’s just a bad fastball. 

Pitchers used substances like Spider Tack to help improve grip that would the RPMs on a given pitch. As mentioned, if you can improve your RPM’s on a fastball to the point where your fastball appears to be rising so much that hitters can’t touch in the top part of the strike zone, then you are going to do it. MLB shifted to this focus on attacking hitters from a north/south approach rather than an east/west approach because of this information. It’s the building block of modern pitching philosophy that we’ve seen so far. 

 For years, MLB didn’t address this issue and thus pitchers took advantage, as they should have. There’s also a significant difference between using spider tack for spin enhancement and using substances like sunscreen and rosin to get a grip on the baseball. Yet, to MLB, it’s all the same and will be enforced the same. What’s the fallout been so far? 


League Wide Round-Up


Eno Sarris of The Athletic, wrote about some of the fallout that we’ve seen already that you can read here. In it, we’ve seen velocity maintain a steady speed throughout, the average spin rate has fallen dramatically. From opening day till June 20th, the average spin rate on a fastball was about 2300 RPMs. From June 21st onward, the average RPM’s on a fastball have fallen by about 90 80 RPMs. That doesn’t seem like a lot on the surface, but it is a reflection of a lot of pitchers taking dramatic hits to their spin rates. Overall usage of the fastball has gone up in this short sample size so far. League-wide four-seam fastball usage has risen by about a single percent. Perhaps just a small sample number or a trend from pitchers who didn’t have great four-seam fastballs being more comfortable with throwing them more. It also could be pitchers have less control of their off-speed pitches and are throwing more fastballs because they feel they have good control of that pitch. 

According to research from Max Bay, there have been about 63 pitchers have dropped at least two standard deviations in spin rate or about 230+ RPM drops. About 60% of pitchers have experienced a significant drop-in spin rate. Pitchers will have to adjust how they use their fastballs. Perhaps pitchers will work back to working the inner and outer halves of the plate with the pitch, or a rise in off-speed pitches like changeups will become more popular. Sinkers, which have already been more popular recently as mentioned by Justin Choi, could see an even larger comeback. But what does this mean for hitters? 

The whole point of this crackdown was to try and get more offense back in the game. We did have to hear rants from people like Theo Epstein about baseball needing to work away from the three true outcomes and get more balls in play. Have we been successful in that? 


It would appear on the surface, that it might be allowing for more true outcomes to take place. Pitchers’ control and command will go down, more walks will happen. According to FanGraphs, the league average contact rate through June 20th was 75.5%. Since then, it’s 75.9. Swinging strike rates and chase rates have remained relatively stable as well. The batting average has gone up so people will point to that and say it’s successful but that could be fluky. Hitters aren’t making a lot more contact all of the sudden, they are just being slightly more patient. Is this even the result that MLB wanted? Maybe, they could just trick fans it’s working by pointing to the higher batting average and say “See look at the shiny thing!” and maybe people will believe it. Strikeouts are relatively the same. In the end, does this even matter? Well, it might matter to your fantasy team!


Rising and Falling


Everyone has been trying to figure out which players are going to thrive in this new environment and which players could struggle. We’ll start with a few obvious names like Gerrit Cole. Cole has been pinned as the face of this issue because of his dramatic drop-in spin rates, his alleged involvement in the Angels clubhouse attendant dealing out sticky stuff, and his less than stellar answers on this topic. Cole struggled a lot in his last start against the Red Sox but his previous two starts with what appeared to be little to no sticky stuff, Cole managed through alright with just 2 earned runs allowed in both starts. However, the strikeouts have been falling for some time. Cole’s fastball isn’t getting the same ride on it as it did, and he hasn’t adjusted his game plan yet with the pitch. Ultimately, I think Cole will remain a dominant starter and figure this out but it’s worth looking into further if Cole is unable to punch tickets like he once did. 

Rich Hill of the Tampa Bay Rays has seen his fastball spin rate dip for four straight starts and is now hovering around 2150 RPMs. Slightly more concerning is the fact that Rich Hill had a FIP over 6 in June and his strikeout rate plummeted in his final few starts of the month. Hill’s age and Tampa’s willingness to not use pitchers as traditional starters would make me confident in selling him off now if you can. His time in major league baseball could be numbered as is. 

The Red Sox have some starting pitching questions in general, but Garrett Richards’s future is one of the most intriguing. He, like Hill and Cole, has seen a dramatic dip in his average spin rates. Like Hill, he began to struggle immensely and a start against the Kansas City Royals looked like it was heading for disaster again. After the second inning, Richards had already surrendered 5 runs and it would put his season ERA over 5. Richards then decided to throw some more sinkers and changeups according to a scouting report and got into the 6th inning and didn’t allow another run. Richards has another start scheduled for Saturday, July 3rd. I’d watch him one more time to see if he sticks with this new game plan that might have formulated when facing Kansas City. 

If I were a fantasy manager, I would be going to check the spin rates on every single one of my pitchers. Guys like Lucas Giolito and Marcus Stroman have also seen some pretty significant hits in their spin rates. Walker Buehler and other pitchers on the Dodgers have had some alarming drops as well. These guys don’t concern me as much as like Cole, they’re great at their craft and can find a way to succeed without foreign substances. However, it would be a worthwhile scandal I’d the Dodgers were supplying their pitchers with foreign substances.

If you see a pitcher who has a significant movement in their spin rate, then be advised on their status as well as their health. An unintended consequence of the midseason crackdown is pitchers’ body’s may not be able to handle all the new muscles that are getting worked from how they might have to throw. 

Ian Anderson is a pitcher who is worth investing in. His spin rates have always been below average but now, his new movement and improving command could turn him into an ace-like pitcher quickly. He’s gained some spin on his fastball recently while his changeup and curveball have remained relatively the same. He’s pitched well in June and has been able to limit the walks his past few outings while racking up the strikeouts. 

Joe Ross has had an up and down season but given an emphasis on a perhaps more sinker-based approach, Ross might be able to find some success in a league where making your fastball look more unique is a good thing. Ross has pitched better of late as well and while his pitches don’t move in above-average ways, it could be enough of a difference between him and someone like Max Scherzer that Ross becomes a worthwhile investment for the rest of the season. 

Ultimately, we will need more time to tell what is legit and what is not. Who is in a hot stretch of starts or who is just struggling for reasons other than the crackdown on foreign substances? Low spin fastball guys have all of the sudden seen an increasing amount of appeal because they already know how to throw those pitches without substances and that could give them a leg up. Starting pitchers who can limit the walks have also become much more valuable now. Major League Baseball has made changes, now it’s time for fantasy managers to adjust to those changes.


Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Max Greenfield

Former Intern for the Washington Nationals, now a Going Deep Writer analyzing the next possible breakout pitcher.

3 responses to “The Crackdown”

  1. Vr says:

    Where are spin rate data accessible? Couldn’t find it on statcast but maybe I wasn’t in the right page

  2. DB says:

    Would love an updated version of this article ~3 weeks from now, a week before the trade deadline.

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